Tag archive: Dan Dare
[Hey ho. Apropos of nothing much, just thought I'd reprint the Doomlord piece I wrote for SFX #200. Enjoy, earthling scum.]
March 27th, 1982. Midnight. A fireball flashes across the skies over “the sleeping town of Cranbridge”. In nearby “Gallows Wood“ it crashes to Earth. The sole witnesses – P.C. Bob Murton and Cranbridge Argus reporter Howard Harvey – rush to the scene. Out of the Stygian gloom, a terrible figure (clad in ornate, ceremonial robes) emerges. A hideous skull-like face is seen. The creature begins to speak. “I AM DOOMLORD… SERVANT OF NOX… MASTER OF LIFE… BRINGER OF DEATH!”.
Thus began the dread (and often-times hilarious) adventures of the “Doomlords“. “Servitors” of the “unnatural world of Nox”, whose “ageless duty [was] to scour the cosmos” and “seek out worlds in danger from the ravages of their own inhabitants”. Yes, fellow earthlings, they were here to judge us…and (*gulp*) they didn’t much like what they saw.
The site/occasion of this startling debut appearance was the relaunch of classic British boys’ comic the Eagle – Issue No. 1 of which came with a free “Space Spinner” (a pound-shop Frisbee) and a cover that intriguingly promised “Dynamic Stories – Told in Exciting Photos and Pics!”. Photos? Over to Eagle editor David Hunt: “When the New Eagle was given the green light…all of us concerned in its development felt it needed an added ingredient to make it different from other mainstream comics of the time”.
This “added ingredient” turned out, controversially, to be the use of “photo-strip” – black and white photographs, speech bubbles and some very basic effects – in place of conventional illustration for the majority of the comic’s stories. A bold decision arrived at largely because, Hunt explains, photo-strip had been “proving…a big plus for the teenage girls’ market”.
Though reader reaction was far from unanimously favourable (with letters as early as issue 10 begging for a return to “comic-strip drawings” and “cartoon versions”), Doomlord’s writers and creators – John Wagner and Alan Grant (whose glittering CVs encompass Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Robo-Hunter etc.) – retain nothing but the fondest of memories of the experiment.
“Photo-strip gave the story an off-key, weird feel”, Grant recalls. “I loved it. I remember being shown the photo-art for the very first episode, in Dave Hunt’s office. It was so different from what we were used to…we were blown away by the quality”. Off-key and weird it most certainly was, but there were inherent (fairly obvious) limitations. “Our main consideration”, says Wagner, “had to be what could be achieved with a camera, actors and minimal budget and still look good”. What this meant, in practice, was that alien “invasion“ narratives were fine and dandy as long as there was “just one alien who happens to spend most of his time in typical, run-of-the-mill British settings”.
Yet, arguably, it was this very necessary grounding of the narrative in the banal and the everyday that made Doomlord so distinctive and memorable (unsettling and blackly comic in equal measure). Unlike ostensible flagship story Dan Dare (the adventures of “a really boring good guy…from a different age”, according to John Wagner) Doomlord was, at least initially, neither space-operatic nor futuristic. It felt real and immediate, like it could be happening in your hometown. On your street. Hell, if you lived anywhere near King’s Reach Tower (IPC’s iconic London HQ) in the early 80s, then it probably was happening on your street.
“The main characters were played by hired actors and several leading actors’ agencies were used”, David Hunt explains. “Many of the guys selected were extremely grateful for the money photo-strip afforded them because of the vagaries and uncertainties of the acting profession“. The performers chosen may not always have been, as John Wagner recalls, of the “matinee idol” variety - “[They] specialised in odd-looking people – I think it was called ‘The Ugly Agency’” – but this absence of glamour only added to Doomlord’s weird charm.
The first of these low-budget, solitary (“Ugly Agency“) aliens was Doomlord Zyn. A relatively conventional villain who routinely sucked dry the brains of total innocents (absorbing their knowledge and hijacking their physical forms) before disintegrating their corpses with his multi-purpose energiser ring. All this in the name of a research project whose goal was to test the fitness (or otherwise) of humankind as stewards of the Earth. The rather limp protagonist/hero of the piece was crusading journalist Howard Harvey – out to expose Zyn’s true identity and intentions (ultimately, “the annihilation of the whole human race“) to superiors and authorities who viewed him as a lunatic crank.
Harvey eventually succeeded in preventing Zyn from carrying out his apocalyptic sentence, but only at the cost of his own life (and professional reputation). Zyn’s disappearance did not, however, go unnoticed or uncommented on. Back on Nox, the “Dread Council” (three cowled figures standing round a table in a tin-foil-walled room) were preparing to send a replacement Earth-ward. Enter Doomlord Vek – he who would become, right through to the strip’s abrupt end in 1989, the definitive Doomlord.
Vek’s initial (unimpressed) take on the human race was not substantially different from that of Zyn (“Their petty ways. Their primitive emotions. A race of buffoons“), but he soon moderated this Noxian disdain for human weakness and idiocy. A key development in this regard was his taking up of residency in the “Bradfield” boarding house of Mrs. Souster and her two sons – disguised as “commercial traveller” Eric Plumrose, a hapless passer-by he’d mercilessly zapped.
Exposed to the unpretentious, homely decency of the Sousters, Vek would come to a realisation that had eluded his predecessor. One that would inexorably shift the focus of his character from fearsome “bringer of death” to quasi-heroic “protector of Earth”. Vek’s simple epiphany was, Alan Grant explains, that “people are, generally, quite likeable, especially as individuals and families”. And that “it’s only when humans gather in abnormal groups – a clutch of politicians, a bevy of military planners – that they start to become insane in their thoughts and deeds”.
Not that this meant, in the short term at least, that Vek refrained from all that jolly brain-sucking and body-disintegrating. He didn’t – carrying on much as before, endlessly repeating the Noxian mantra (or excuse) that “the fate of the individual is unimportant when the survival of the species is at stake”. This rather cavalier attitude to human life initially presented certain challenges in selling Vek as protagonist and “hero”. “I suppose we hit on the formula the first time it became necessary for him to kill”, says Wagner. “Won’t he look bad? No. To a Noxian our little lives were about as valuable as a blade of grass – the readers understood that and didn’t hold it against him”.
Unlike more conventional alien “invaders”, the Serivtors of Nox were neither here to a) colonise the planet, or b) enslave (and eat!) us. Equally, they had little interest in the threat a warlike species on the verge of space travel posed to the galaxy at large. Their chief concern was for the welfare of planets themselves - as ecosystems, as entities. The cataclysmic plague Zyn had planned to release would, for example, have targeted human beings only. Blameless “lower species” would have been spared: allowed to live on in an Eden untainted by man.
Under Vek’s watch Doomlord would flower into something approaching a radical environmentalist/socialist fantasy – with the burgeoning ecology movement an acknowledged influence (Alan Grant: “It was on TV and in the papers constantly, a sort of background noise for everybody”). Polluting captains of industry would be forced (through hypnosis or plain old violence) to mend their ways. Corrupt judges and MPs were shamed and exposed. Vek even had his own TV show to promote and propel major societal changes (a slightly more extreme – but less crazy – forerunner to Noel’s HQ).
Vek’s most dramatic interventions centred around the campaign for nuclear disarmament – a utopian cause he pursued with no little vigour. Impressive results were achieved through such hard-core, zero-tolerance tactics as: deliberately launching an American ICBM at the USSR (to bring the super-powers to their senses) and completely wiping out the small market town of “Prattlewell” (to demonstrate his awesome “Don’t mess with me, Earthlings!” power).
As the years rolled by, however, and Vek grew further into his role as Earth guardian (saving the planet from countless perils/invasions), something of the delicious amorality of the early stories was lost. Vek had, basically, become too damn nice. A Superman-esque hero who even had his own “Fortress of Solitude” (sorry, “Isolarium”) on the moon. A worthy antagonist was badly needed. Someone who embodied the blackly-comic brutal essence of the old days. Enter Enok – Vek‘s deeply troubled offspring and one of the nastiest, angriest and most memorably demented “bad son” characters in comic history.
Born from a fusion of a human egg and Vek’s Noxian blood (and born out of Vek’s desire to experience the human feeling of familial love), Enok soon became an extreme poster-child for moody, pissed-off adolescence. Like Spock his mixed (alien/human) heritage would cause him to feel confused and conflicted. Unlike Spock, he responded to this confusion by murdering his own father, attempting to kill a school bully (who had unwisely harassed him), and creating a doomsday device to melt the polar ice-caps and flood the earth.
Oh, and that was just for starters. In an alternative dimension he became tyrannical overlord of the entire planet. Ruling with a seriously iron fist from his “Palace of Torture” in Trafalgar Square (where he even mercilessly tormented Vek’s beloved Mrs. Souster). He did, in fairness, eventually turn out a fairly well-balanced adult – but only after Daddy Vek had marooned him on an asteroid in the depths of space (a no-nonsense Noxian take on sending someone to their room).
By this stage (late 1986), the photo-strip experiment had long since been abandoned – having proved “extremely labour intensive” and “impractical” according to David Hunt. Though veteran artist Eric Bradbury (a master of shadow and texture) produced some strikingly beautiful work for the strip, John Wagner, for one, mourned photo-strip’s passing: “Doomlord was special in photo-strip – afterwards [though still good!] it was just another story“.
Bradbury’s glorious black and white art may have “liberated” the story – allowing it to become far more epic in scope – but it’s probably the incongruous kitchen-sink/SF charm of the early days that people remember most (and most affectionately). Images of a rubber-masked Doomlord Vek perched on the couch in the Souster’s chintzy front room (watching his favourite Earth show…Coronation Street) are potent and evocative ones for readers of a certain vintage. At a time when the (tedious) default mode for superhero stories is “dark”, gritty, and ever-so-serious (thanks a lot, Frank Miller) – we could do worse than pray for the resurrection of a Noxian who‘d routinely utter immortal lines like: “They are my….friends! They want me to go to Butlin’s with them – you must not hurt them!”.
Here to doom us, he came to love us…and we him. Happily forgiving the often brutal and murderous manifestations of his “love”. Why? Because maybe (just maybe) readers secretly felt that the Doomlords were right. That even if, in John Wagner‘s words, “some of us could be likeable on an individual basis…humanity, as a whole, had it coming”.
Little extra bits…
Fittingly – given the story’s zero-budget, kitchen-sink charm – Doomlord Vek’s favourite terrestrial TV show was Coronation Street. Earth cynics may have regarded it as just another soap, but for Vek it was: “A most excellent human drama!“.
Rarely missing an episode, and often eulogising its importance (“Ah, Coronation Street! All Human Life is Here! The Species in Microcosm!”), Vek’s love of “Corrie” was referenced frequently. Rarely more entertainingly than when, as he dashed out to battle a reborn Zyn for the fate of humankind, Mrs. Souster warned “Don’t be long now. Coronation Street is just about to start!”.
The Doomlord Mask
The relaunched Eagle’s most iconic image? Not the Mekon’s bulbous head – nor the arched eyebrows of Dan Dare – but (clearly) the fanged/skeletal rubber-masked face of Doomlord.
Though the mask may not have afforded the actor underneath much opportunity to emote, its unsettlingly “alien” blankness burned itself into the brains of sensitive readers (causing untold sleepless nights). Its designer remains unknown (perhaps unknowable) as it was bought, along with the glitzy robes and deadly energiser ring, “off the peg” in a London theatrical outfitters. David Hunt, John Wagner, Alan Grant and (Group Editor) Barrie Tomlinson appear to be the responsible/guilty parties.